Q. How many epistemologists does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A. How do you know it's a light bulb?
This weekend I'll be traveling to Brooklyn to try my skill (and luck) at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament for the eighth straight year.
Last year I finished 166th out of
572 overall (down from 142, unfortunately), but did manage to finish eighth in my regional division.
We'll see what happens. Hope to get back to you next week.
For many years when I was a kid, the high school up the street played host to traveling summer-stock ensembles.
These groups were headed by stars of varying magnitudes -- including Joan Fontaine, George Gobel, James Whitmore and Durward Kirby. (Yes, my younger readers, there was once a show-biz person by the name of Durward Kirby. Calling him a star might be stretching it -- he was basically an announcer who found fame as a sidekick on a variety show headed by perhaps the best M.C. of all time, Garry Moore.)
During one of those summer weeks, the star was Sid Caesar, who appeared in "The Last of the Red Hot Lovers," written by his one-time writer Neil Simon.
I didn't see the play. (I was too young and stupid to attend most of these plays, not realizing that they provided a great opportunity to see a form of summer entertainment that is now gone forever.)
But I did see a local TV interview with Caesar.
I'm not sure whether "Ten from 'Your Show of Shows,'" a movie featuring some of the best moments from Caesar's signature TV show, had been released. I was too young to have seen that 1950s TV classic, and I mainly knew him from his later appearances on TV shows like "That Girl" and in movies like "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" and "The Busy Body," a mystery-comedy directed by William "The Tingler" Castle and based on a book by Donald Westlake. Caesar starred in "The Busy Body," but it couldn't bring his career out of rigor mortis.
Anyway, Caesar was interviewed outside a motel less than a mile from my home. The local guy who brought in the summer stock shows apparently had booked a room for him there. (I like to think I'm wrong about that -- the motel is now an assisted-living home, and from what I saw of it once while visiting a couple of friends there, I'm sure that Caesar deserved much better.)
The filmed interview defined the word "paradox" better than any lexicographer could. Some (including me) say that Sid Caesar was one of the funniest comedians ever, but in the interview he acted as if he were days away from a trip to the electric chair and kind of looking forward to it. I don't remember any of the questions or answers -- all I remember is the body language, his stiffness and terseness. The interviewer would have had a much easier time getting blood out of all the stones in the Grand Canyon.
For all I know, onstage up the street from me, aand rmed with material by the country's best-known playwright, Caesar was his usual brilliant self. Off the stage, as himself, he seemed to be in some sort of pain.
Years later I read his autobiography ("Where Have I Been?"), and the broken pieces of Caesar's life and career seemed to fall into place. The book told of his struggles with depression and pills, and I'm now pretty sure that on that summer day outside the motel, he was in the midst of one of those battles.
Apparently he was able to overcome his problems, or at least deal with them, by the time the book came out, because during interviews at that time he seemed much happier. Or at least less tortured.
I won't attempt a deep-dish analysis Sid Caesar's genius. I'll just say that his work still stands up and, I think, always will because like the best comedy performers, he understood human nature, which never changes from century to century -- or from kinescopes to digital.
(To read more about those summer stock shows, go here. The "Rolls-Royce lady" is Joan Fontaine, whom I didn't identify at the time because she was still alive and still, I assume, capable of filing lawsuits.)
I received a letter in the mail today.
The letter is from the U.S. Postal Service.
It invites me to volunteer for a study to help them “understand and improve processing and mail delivery.”
The study would require me to spend “only a few minutes a day” to report the kinds of mail I receive each day. I would make these reports “via an easy-to-navigate website.” (Hmm. Where have we heard that before?)
I hope I won’t seem like a disloyal American when I say that I won’t be participating in the study.
For one thing, I often can’t spare “a few minutes a day.” And I’m sure I’d be forgetful; as it is, I sometimes have trouble remembering to floss. (Just ask my hygienist.)
But even if I wanted to participate, there’s another problem.
Although the letter I received today is from the U.S. Postal Service, it was not sent to me by the U.S. Postal Service.
It was sent to me by my stepmother.
She had received the letter at her home because it was addressed to me at her address.
You’ve probably heard that Russell Johnson and Dave Madden died last week.
Johnson played the Professor on “Gilligan’s Island,” and Madden was most famous for portraying Reuben Kincaid on “The Partridge Family.”
Johnson had played many other roles before landing the part that would make him famous. One Sunday morning when I was a kid, I was surprised to see him playing the villain in a 1950s Universal western. Although he did his customary good job, he seemed out of character. (Then again, is a versatile character actor ever out of character?)
Not long before “Gilligan,” he starred in a “Twilight Zone” episode as a man who goes back in time and tries to avert the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. His failure to do so did not inspire much confidence that he would ever figure a way to get off that island.
For the first year of “Gilligan,” the folks in charge of billing didn’t seem to have much respect for Johnson and Dawn Wells, who played Mary Ann. During that first season, the song that told the saga of the shipwreck of the Minnow and sang of the castaways mentioned that “Gilligan … the Skipper, too … the millionaire and his wife … the movie star … and the rest … are here on Gilligan’s isle!”
“And the rest”?!
I can’t help thinking that after seeing this opening, Johnson and Wells and their respective agents had what reporters on the diplomacy beat used to call “a spirited discussion.”
Years after the show ended, Johnson seemed good-natured about the fact that he would be best remembered for a part that probably limited his career without making him rich. I would have been honored to meet him.
Dawn Wells (now one of the two last surviving members of the cast, along with Tina Louise, who played Ginger), has always seemed like a good sport about the show. (For years my little sister cherished an autograph “Mary Ann” gave her while appearing in a summer stock play up the street from our house.)
Although Dave Madden was best known for “The Partridge Family,” I remembered him more from the early days of “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.” But one of the obits for him reminded me of another, long-forgotten show he appeared on:
If you’ve never heard of it, you probably won’t be surprised to know that it was a comedy about a kids’ summer camp. I remember it as being a broad comedy; perhaps it wasn’t all the way over the top, but it was at least seven-eighths of the way there. It might be the only sitcom that ever made “Gilligan” look like Chekhov.
The camp was run by a guy named Wivenhoe, played by Arch Johnson, who otherwise played mostly heavies in shows like “Perry Mason.” I think Madden was one of the counselors, and the cast also included Dave Ketchum (later Agent 13 on “Get Smart”) and a young woman named Nina Wayne, whose sister Carol was for many years Art Fern’s blond “Matinee Lady” on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.”
Nina was a brunette version of Carol, and “Camp Runamuck” came along at a time when not quite so little old me was beginning to take an interest in the opposite sex.
“Camp Runamuck” should have been a lot better than it was, considering that it was created by David Swift, who was better known as the creator of “Mr. Peepers” and the writer and director of the original “Parent Trap” (starring my first big crush, Hayley Mills).
Perhaps NBC suspected that “Runamuck” wouldn’t be a runaway hit and for that reason decided to stick it on Friday night, which even then seemed to be a TV dumping ground.
I think the show preceded another sitcom, called “Hank,” which was about a guy who badly wanted to go to college but couldn’t afford it and kept attending classes in disguise. I recall that the publicity for the show described Hank as a “drop-in.” (As opposed to “dropout.” Get it? Get it? OK, I’ll stop nudging you now.)
The best thing about “Hank” was that it made “Camp Runamuck” look like Chekhov. (Which, in turn, made “Gilligan” look like Sophocles.) “Hank” starred a guy named Dick Kallman, a graduate of the Keefe Brasselle School of Reverse Charisma.
You don’t remember Keefe Brasselle? Lucky you.
You want to see Keefe Brasselle in action? Go here. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. And if you’ve just had a big meal, wait for at least one hour before jumping into it.
You’ll thank me later.